[Classics] What Next? Vital Questions for the German Proletariat

5. An Historical Review of the ... United Front

The contentions regarding the policies of the united front take their origin from such fundamental and inexorable exigencies of the struggle of class against class (in the Marxist and not the bureaucratic sense of these words) that one cannot read the refutations of the Stalinist bureaucracy without a feeling of shame and indignation. It is one thing to keep on explaining, from day to day, the most rudimentary ideas to the most backward and benighted workers or peasants, One can do it without any feeling of exhaustion; for here it is a matter of enlightening fresh strata. But woe to him who is perforce obliged to explain and to prove elementary propositions to people whose brains have been flattened out by the bureaucratic steam roller. What can one do with “leaders” who have no logical arguments at their disposal and who make up for that by referring to the cyclopedia of international epithets. The fundamental propositions of Marxism they parry by one and the same epithet, “counter-revolution”! This word has become inordinately cheapened on the lips of those who have in no manner as yet proved their capacity to achieve a revolution. Still, what about the decisions passed by the first four Congresses of the Comintern? Does the Stalinist bureaucracy accept them, or not?

The documents still survive and still preserve their significance to this day. Out of a large number, I have chosen the theses worked out by me, between the III and the IV Congresses; they relate to the French Communist Party; they were approved by the Politbureau of the CPSU and the Executive Committee of the Comintern and were published, in their time, in various foreign Communist publications. Below is reprinted verbatim that part of the theses which is devoted to the formulation and the defence of the policy of the united front:

It is quite obvious that the class life of the proletariat does not cease during the period preparatory to the revolution. Clashes with industrialists, with the bourgeoisie, with the state, at the initiative of either side, occur with the self-same regularity. In these clashes, in so far as they involve the vital interests of the entire working class, or of its majority, or any part of it, the working masses realise the need for united action ...The party that mechanically counterposes itself to this need ... will be inevitably condemned in the minds of the workers.

“The problem of the united front-notwithstanding the inevitable split, in a given period, between the political organisations which lean upon the working class-originates in the urgent need to guarantee to the working class the possibility of the united front in its struggle against capitalism. For him who does not understand this. problem, the party is a society for propaganda, and not the organisation for mass action.

“Had not the Communist party broken definitely and irrevocably with the social democracy, it could have never become the party of the proletarian revolution. Had not the Communist party sought for organisational means to the end that, at each given moment, joint action, mutually agreed upon, be made possible between the Communist and non-Communist (including the social-democratic) working masses, it would have revealed thereby its incapacity – on the basis of mass action – to win over the majority of the working class.

“After dissociating the Communists from reformism, it is not enough to bind them by organisational discipline; it is also necessary that the organisation be taught how to guide all collective activities of the proletariat, in all spheres of its living struggle. That is the second letter of the ABC of Communism.

“Is the united front to be extended so as to include only the working masses, or so as to include also opportunistic leaders? The very manner in which this question is posed is the outgrowth of a misconception. Were we able to simply unite the working masses around our banner ... by eliminating the reformist party, or trade union organisations – that, of course, would be the best way. But, in that case, the very question of the united front, in its present form, would be non-existent.

“We are interested, beyond all other considerations, in dragging the reformists from out of their lairs and in opposing them before the eyes of the struggling masses. With a correct tactic, we alone stand to gain thereby. The Communist who is dubious or afraid of this behaves after the fashion of a swimmer who, after approving the propositions as regards the best method of swimming, dares not risk jumping into the water.

“Upon entering into agreements with other organisations, we bind ourselves, of course, to a certain discipline of action. But this discipline must not take on an absolute character. In the event that the reformists begin applying the brake to the struggle, to the evident detriment of the movement and in counterpoise to the situation and the state of mind of the masses, we, as an independent organisation, always reserve the right to lead the struggle to its conclusion without our temporary semi-allies.

“One can see in this policy a merger with the reformists only from the point of view of a journalist, who flatters himself that he is far removed from reformism because he criticises it in the self-same pat phraseology, without leaving the editorial room, but who is leery of encountering it in the eyes of the working masses and thus giving them the opportunity to appraise the Communist and the reformist under the equal conditions of the mass struggle. Behind this ostensibly revolutionary dread of ‘merger’ there hides, in fact, a political passivity which yearns to maintain such an order of things as will allow both the Communists and the reformists to have their own sharply demarcated spheres of influence, their own audiences at meetings, and their own press – which all together creates the illusion of a serious political struggle.

“In the question of the united front, as it is raised, we observe a passive and wishy-washy tendency masked by verbal intransigence. At once, the following paradox hits one in the eye: the Right wing elements of the party, with their Centrist and pacifist tendencies… step forward as the most irreconcilable opponents of the united front. And on the other hand, those elements, which, during the most difficult moments held their position entirely on the grounds of the 3rd International, now step forward for the tactic of the united front. What is actually the case is that the supporters of the temporising and passive tactic are now stepping forward behind the mask of pseudo-revolutionary intransigeance.” (Trotsky, Five Years of the Comintern, pp.375-378; Russian edition.)

Doesn’t it seem as if these lines were written today against Stalin-Manuilsky-Thälmann-Neumann? Actually, they were written ten years ago, against Frossard, Cachin, Charles Rappaport, Daniel Renoult and other French opportunists disguising themselves with ultra-leftism. We put this question point blank to the Stalinist bureaucracy: Were the theses we quoted “counter-revolutionary” even during that time when they expressed the policies of the Russian Politbureau, with Lenin at its head, and when they defined the policy of the Comintern? We warn them duly not to attempt in answer to reply that conditions have changed since that period: the matter does not concern questions of conjuncture; but, as the text itself puts it, of the A B C of Marxism.

And so, ten years ago, the Comintern explained that the gist of the united front policy was in the following: the Communist party proves to the masses and their organisations its readiness in action to wage battle in common with them, for aims, no matter how modest, so long as they lie on the road of the historical development of the proletariat; the Communist party in this struggle takes into account the actual condition of the class at each given moment; it turns not to the masses only, but also to those organisations whose leadership. is recognised by the masses; it confronts the reformist organisations before the eyes of the masses with the real problems of the class struggle. The policy of the united front hastens the revolutionary development of the class by revealing in the open that the common struggle is undermined not by the disruptive acts of the Communist party but by the conscious sabotage of the leaders of the social democracy. It is absolutely clear that these conceptions could in no sense have become obsolete.

Then how explain the rejection of the policy of the united front by the Comintern? By the miscarriages and the failures of this policy in the past. Were these failures, the causes for which reside, not in the policy but in the politicians, examined and analysed and studied in their time, the German Communist Party would be strategically and tactically excellently equipped for the present situation. But the Stalinist bureaucracy chose to behave like the near-sighted monkey in the fable; after adjusting the spectacles on its tail and licking them to no result, the monkey concluded that they were no good at all and dashed them against a rock. Put it as you please, but the spectacles are not at fault.

The mistakes made in the policy of the united front fall into two categories. In mot cases the leading organs of the Communist party approached the reformists with an offer of joining in a common struggle for radical slogans which were alien to the situation and which found no response in the masses. These proposals partook of the nature of blank shots. The masses remained indifferent, the reformist leaders interpreted these proposals of the Communists as a trick to destroy the social democracy. In each of these instances only a purely formal, declamatory application of the policy of united front was inaugurated; whereas, by its very nature, it can prove fruitful only on the basis of a realistic appraisal of the situation and of the condition of the masses. The weapon of “open letters” became outworn from too frequent and thereto, faulty application, and had to be given up.

The second type of perversion bore a much more fatal character. In the hands of the Stalinist bureaucracy, the policy of the united front became a hue and cry after allies at the cost of sacrificing the independence of the party. Backed by Moscow and deeming themselves omnipotent, the functionaries of the Comintern seriously esteemed themselves to be capable of laying down the law to the classes and of prescribing their itinerary; of checking the agrarian and strike movements in China; of buying an alliance with Chiang Kai-Shek at the cost of sacrificing the independent policies of the Comintern; of re-educating the trade union bureaucracy, the chief bulwark of British imperialism through educational courses at banquet tables in London, or in Caucasian resorts; of transforming Croatian bourgeois of Radich’s type into Communists, etc., etc. All this was undertaken, of course, with the best of intentions, in order to hasten developments by accomplishing for the masses what the masses weren’t mature enough to do for themselves. It’s not beside the point to mention that in a number of countries, Austria in particular, the functionaries of the Comintern tried their hand, during the past period, at creating artificially and “from above” a “Left” social democracy-to serve as a bridge to Communism. Nothing but failures were produced by this tomfoolery likewise. Invariably these experiments and filibusterings ended catastrophically. The revolutionary movement in the world was flung back for many years.

Thereupon Manuilsky decided to break the spectacles; and as for Kuusinen – he, to avoid further mistakes, decreed everyone, except himself and his cronies, to be Fascists. Whereupon the matter was clarified and simplified, no more mistakes were possible. What kind of a united front can there be with “social Fascists” against National Fascists, or with the “Left social Fascists” against the “Rights”? Thus by describing over our heads an arc of 180°, the Stalinist bureaucracy found itself compelled to announce the decisions of the first four Congresses as counter-revolutionary.